Charity Commission needs more lawyers, not more powers, Lord Phillips says

In his written evidence to the committee that is scrutinising the draft Protection of Charities Bill, the Liberal Democrat peer says the problem with the regulator is its lack of resources

Lord Phillips of Sudbury
Lord Phillips of Sudbury

The Charity Commission does not need extended powers but more lawyers, according to Lord Phillips of Sudbury, the Liberal Democrat peer and experienced charity lawyer.

Phillips expounded this view in his written evidence to the joint committee that is scrutinising the draft Protection of Charities Bill, which he submitted in December and was published on the parliamentary website this week.

Phillips, who founded the law firm Bates Wells Braithwaite in 1970 and has been a peer since 1998, asked in his brief written statement: "What are the statistics (or estimates) to back this new raft of measures?"

The statement says he will ask for this data once the bill reaches the Lords, but says he fears he would have to make "shedloads of amendments" to the bill – he does not specify what these might be.

Phillips says the problem with the commission is not its lack of powers, but its lack of resources. The suggestion that the commission’s effectiveness is harmed by its lack of funding has been made by several people in their evidence to the committee.

Phillips’s evidence says: "I am unconvinced of the need for the bill. I have wasted more breath than I can now manufacture, over the years, pointing out that the Charity Commission is seriously understaffed, especially at the upper end. Those that are there do their very best, but have far too much to do."

Phillips says that whenever the commission threatens serious regulatory action, the individual on the receiving end of that threat "will run for the lawyers (and lots of them if he/she/they are well-breeched) which, the commission well knows, will tie up more resources than it can deploy".

He goes on to say: "That discourages the commission from taking on any but the strongest cases, which even then tend to tie down disproportionate resources.

"If the commission had many more experienced lawyers, it would have some chance of implementing effectively the laws we have got. In that event, the exemplary effect would be instant and profound, rendering most of the bill superfluous."

Phillips's statement says that the extra regulations surrounding eligibility to be a charity trustee would put off many potential trustees. "It will also push charities into the arms of professionals, at huge cost and trustee time, plus anxiety," he says.

The bill committee held its final oral evidence session this week and will now use the oral and written evidence to write a report on the draft bill, expected to be published next month.

Phillips told Third Sector he was "mildly miffed" at not having been called to give oral evidence to the committee, given his experience in charity law.

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